Hayley Kiyoko: Panorama Album Review
The term “lesbian celebrity” was once an oxymoron. Openly lesbian musicians, most famously the signees and signatories of the Washington, DC label Olivia, often worked in an insular and separatist manner, making and distributing music among themselves while maintaining a strong skepticism of the mainstream. It wasn’t until the 1990s that lesbians began to become a visible, marketable demographic, a commercial watershed marked by events such as kd lang that kept Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1993 and Ellen DeGeneres who came out on TV in 1997. More recently, the banner of the proud lesbian cultural icon has been taken up by Hayley Kiyoko, the former Disney actress turned pop singer. For nearly a decade, Kiyoko has helped create a consistent place for women who love women within pop’s contemporary mainstream, tying her success to a politics of visibility and representation. Across her self-directed music videos, Kiyoko has brought underrepresented identities into her mainstream ambition.
Unfortunately, lesbian celebrities are still few and far between, and as such, Kiyoko is often called upon as a delegate for queer women. In the choreographed intimacy of her videos and her newly publicized relationships with former Bachelor star Becca Tilley, she provides a public template for the private lives of young fans. Every June, she pops up for timely cover stories, offering gracious soundbites about self-love and queer joy. Today, there is a striking link between the radical social figure of Kiyoko’s interviews and the steamy silliness of her music. Her lyrics tend toward well-worn and impersonal platitudes, and you have to dig beyond the music itself for any sense of transcendence or revelation. You’re more likely to find poignancy and power in fan comments on Kiyoko’s Instagram account than in her text book.
Her second album Panorama– inspired by a shift towards a healthy, conscientious lifestyle after a period of years of mental and physical health problems – intends to show Kiyoko’s personality beyond the pablum. Instead, the theme of embracing the journey and the struggle, rather than the destination, feels as bromidic and distant as a therapy commercial. Kiyoko hides behind trodden pop star figures: From “Found My Friends”‘s big version FEELING-era Carly Rae Jepsen to the metrically perfect theft of Taylor Swift’s hiccup flow on “Well…”, the pop genre rules Kiyoko rather than the other way around. Instead of defining a unique sound, Panorama bearing the unmistakable metallic tang of inverted construction.
Kiyoko’s 2018 debut Expectations was filled with euphoric walls of sound that made your heart feel like it was in congruence with the world, reminders of her theater-child youth listening to Arcade Fire and Coldplay. This time she collaborated with Danja, the super producer known for her work with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, who encouraged her to make her vocals more prominent. Panorama has fewer such cinematic moments, but when they do appear – as on “Found My Friends” – the production gives plenty of space to Kiyoko’s voice. This is not necessarily a good thing. Kiyoko is not the strongest or most distinctive singer; more nasal than diaphragmatic, her vocal personality tends to make everything sound anti-emergency. This has suited her music in the past, such as on the 2018 single “Curious”, where she played the role of an ex-lover trying to appear unhappy with her ex-boyfriend’s new relationship. But when she tries a dramatic, emotionally sincere vocal line, she misses the mark. As her voice wades flat into the stacked night-drive chords of “Found My Friends,” it feels like speeding into a traffic jam.
The unintentionally anhedonic delivery squanders the album’s more galvanizing moments. “Loving you is all I wanna know,” she sings through the exuberant embellishment and weeping violin of “Supposed to Be,” with the haste of a hotel receptionist. Even when the lyrics point to desperation, there’s no frisson. Here, Kiyoko has achieved the previously unthinkable: a lesbian love song that feels devoid of intensity.
It’s a shame that Panoramaartistry does not match Kiyoko’s accolades. But she shines on the album’s best songs, “Sugar at the Bottom” and “For the Girls,” a pair of summery, percussion-driven jingles that use a bass-as-lead approach. Both revolve around smooth hooks rather than soaring choruses, in a way that befits someone like Dua Lipa, who crams syllables into a tight metrical structure, turning tongue-twisters into choruses. Kiyoko’s voice sounds absorbing rather than detached, and for a moment the most interesting thing about her is the music she makes.
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